In an interview with the daily La Nación shortly before his death on Sept. 9, former Broad Front Party lawmaker José Merino Del Río noted what he called an “irritation with a government vacuum,” which has resulted in an “enormous and accumulated discontent that can be seen in the streets.”
Merino said Costa Rican politics has reached its most discredited point, and that if you speak about politics, people resent it.
“It’s all corruption, scams and unfulfilled promises,” Merino said. “Everyone is taking care of themselves, and the president has no power.”
One month after Merino died while receiving treatment in Cuba for kidney cancer, student protests erupted on the streets of San José after President Laura Chinchilla vetoed a bill that would allow for small businesses to make photocopies of educational material (See story).
The previous day, unrelated to the student protests, a report published by crhoy.com named 18 government officials currently under investigation by the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, all members of the ruling National Liberation Party, or PLN (TT, Oct. 8). Investigations include allegations of embezzlement, corruption and illicit gain, although no one has been convicted and the investigations are ongoing.
“It’s just one thing after another,” said Wilson Arroyo, a member of the youth wing of the opposition Broad Front Party, who said he is looking forward to political change. Wilson is one of a growing minority of young people looking for new political leadership.
“The Broad Front gives us opportunities others [political groups] don’t. For example, I am the president of Broad Front Youth in the canton of Alajuela, and I am only 21 years old. These are the opportunities young people need.”
Enter leftist Broad Front Party lawmaker José María Villalta. Perhaps due to the power of his words, often matched by the volume of his voice, Villalta, 35, has made himself heard among the din of majority lawmakers as the only nationally elected Broad Front official. Villalta has taken the concerns of people like Arroyo seriously.
Villalta served under Merino as a legislative assistant from 2006-2010, before Villalta also was elected.
He has positioned himself in conspicuous opposition to the PLN, aligning with young voters and students. Prior to his political career, Villalta served in the University of Costa Rica’s Student Rights Association from 1997-1998 and later sat on the board of the Federation of Students from 1998-2000.
The rift between the PLN and the socialist Broad Front Party was clearly demonstrated on Sept. 10, when PLN lawmakers exited the legislative plenary during Villalta’s elegy to the late Merino.
PLN lawmakers were dismayed at Villalta’s attempt to stir up popular dissent over Chinchilla’s decision to veto a polemic photocopy bill.
A reform bill introduced by Merino sought to modify Law 8,039, which left open possible penalties for a common on-campus practice, the photocopying of academic materials for students by photocopying shops and bookstores. The bill Merino presented would eliminate jail time for violation of intellectual property rights (TT, Aug. 17).
Surprising many, the bill passed a second legislative debate, prompting the Chamber of Information Technology and Commerce to request a presidential veto. Chinchilla abided, spurring the protests.
Villalta, undeterred, replied, “The government chose [to side with] powerful business chambers. The students need to photocopy to study, and we support their demands.”
Responding to the protests, Chinchilla on Monday signed a decree that protects photocopying for academic purposes.
“It’s very contradictory,” Villalta said. “The decree practically says the same thing the president vetoed a few days ago.”
The Broad Front Party is a spin-off of the short-lived, center-left Democratic Force. Merino served as a lawmaker for Democratic Force from 1998-2002, before breaking ties with the group and forming the Broad Front Party in 2004.
A new website created by Broad Front Youth was launched this month, at www.rebeldia.org (which borrows the Spanish word for rebelliousness). Young party members have been quick to channel the energy of the recent protests, and the site provides a forum for organizing protests and connecting young people interested in the party.
Antonio Trejos, who heads communications for the new website and its forum, said the site has seen a spike in activity since the protests, and more than 300 active, young party members participate throughout the country.
“He [Merino] insisted the country needed deep changes, and even during the most chaotic circumstances, he stood up for pacifist solutions and always urged young party members to play an active role in the party,” Trejos said.
“Merino was an untiring critic of the neoliberal model and of the United States as a foreign influence and decision maker for our national politics,” he added.
Trejos said he believes Villalta is the next progression within the Merino model.
“Villalta is not only the youngest lawmaker in the Legislative Assembly, but also the most active,” Trejos said. Villalta has sponsored and presented 47 bills, and six have passed. He is a champion of equal rights and has sponsored a same-sex union bill, as well as a bill that would legalize in vitro fertilization, which was banned in 2000.
Trejos added that the Broad Front Youth movement is trying to better understand the historical conditions of the “battle” between social classes to “realize that we are a part of a social reality much larger: capitalism.”
Villalta has listened to and acted on the growing discontent among the youth population, and with Chinchilla’s ratings the lowest of any Latin America leader, the Broad Front Party is hoping they can ride the waves of dissatisfaction to the polls.
While Villalta has not announced his candidacy for president in 2014, he hasn’t ruled it out.
“I’m considering all my options,” said Villalta, “of which [a presidential run] is one.”